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Q&A with Ben Myers author of Pig Iron

My favourite new book of last year was Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers.  It’s special to me because it evoked such an emotional response when I wasn’t expecting it to.  I still think about it now, many months after first reading it.  It is an earthy book, a book of the land and nature.  It gets under your skin and your fingernails (if you know what I mean).  I was  pleased when my friend Trueblood chose it for her bookclub earlier this year and I asked Ben some questions to help with their discussion.  His answers form the majority of this Q&A (with his permission, of course), last week I asked him some further questions about his forthcoming work.  Here’s what he had to say:

Please give me a short biography?

I was born in 1976. I grew up on a nice sedate, lower middle class estate in the north-east of England. I remember neat lawns, the miner’s strike, summer holidays, spirited people. A sense of safety in the world. I was and still am close to my family. At the age of 10 my grandfather killed himself then at 11 I was seriously ill and had a kidney removed (AFH: weirdly, we have this in common). That was my first awareness that life is fragile.

My childhood was a happy one, though I hated school. In my teens I played in bands, voraciously read fiction, took drugs, met girls. I went to university and studied literature. At the same time I started writing for the now defunct Melody Maker. I interviewed pop stars. After graduating with a low-level degree from a provincial new university I became their staff writer and moved into a squatted building in South London. From 1996 I travelled widely with bands on various rock missions as the paper’s staff writer, and wrote novels in my spare time. I barely slept. In 1999 I went freelance and embarked upon many more years writing for many magazines.  I spent a lot of time in cold dressing rooms and strange hotels across Europe and America….

Fiction was always my first love though and I published a lot of stories and poems in small press journals and anthologies during this time. I also had many attempts at writing novels. I have a stockpile of unpublished works.

In 2001 I vomited blood on a plane from Los Angeles and stopped drinking. Soon afterwards I began to concentrate seriously on fiction, and my first novel The Book Of Fuck documented this time. From 2003-2006 I published a series of non-fiction music books and also co-ran a self-financed record label. In 2009 I moved back up north, to Calderdale, West Yorkshire where I have thrown myself into writing novels with a new-found intensity that borders on the dangerously obsessed.

Pig Iron is a book about travelling communities, what research did you
have to do?

pig iron

I did research the old-fashioned way, really: by reading books. But also talking to people, being told anecdotes, watching documentaries, reading old press cuttings.  It’s a subject I was interested in long before I actually decided to write a novel set in that community.

John John Wisdom feels more at home outdoors than anywhere else. What about you?  Do you take inspiration from your natural surroundings and landscapes nearby?

Oh, definitely. As a child I climbed up lots of mountains and now every day I try and walk in the woods or up hills or across the moors. Even just for a few minutes. I lived in London for 12 years and that was the thing I struggled with most – the lack of open space and fresh air. I like to watch the season’s change, observe bird and animals and plant-life. I actually know very little about the theoretical/technical side of nature – the science of it, the naming of species and so forth – but instead still feel an emotional response. I like being around animals. I like watching their behaviour and habits. I like weather. I like rain, snow and sunshine. I like to exhaust myself in order to prevent my brain from running away with itself. It’s true what they say. Fresh air: it’s good for you.

The book is set in an area deeply affected by Thatcher’s policies that depressed the local mining industry. Is your book a metaphor for the social inequalities in today’s Tory Britain?

It was only after the book came out and a Guardian reviewer said the same thing that I thought that, yes, perhaps it is. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to get that point across but sub-consciously I think the book does work as a metaphor for Thatcher’s extreme prejudice against The North as a whole, and serves as an outlet for my anger at what she did – and what Cameron and co are doing now. Because in recession and/or under the Conservatives, it seems as if the poor and marginalised are always the first to be demonised and further disenfranchised. It’s happening again now with the unemployed, the disabled, the foreign nationals. After 15 years of paying tax I tried to sign on for a brief period last year when there was no freelance work and was effectively told, in the nicest terms, to piss off.

The book contains several violent scenes yet the end is quiet and calm did you consider a more bloodthirsty ending?

Yes. I considered having a much more violent showdown at the end with John-John wreaking revenge and retribution on his adversaries, but that seemed a clichéd cop-out too reminiscent of spaghetti western films. I wanted to show him as someone who has advanced beyond his background and disadvantaged upbringing, and who has ultimately become a better man than anyone else in his small world. He is actually the only moral person in the entire novel, and I wanted to reinforce that through the ending.

I’ve seen one commentator compare the writing in Pig Iron to Salinger and Golding. Do you see this as a “coming of age” novel?

I see it as a novel about consequences. Cause and effect. And also about man’s animalistic impulses – how violence has not yet evolved out of us as a species. I suppose in that sense, thematically at least, it could be seen as similar to Lord Of The
Flies.

The narrative in Pig Iron is sort of stream of consciousness, why did you chose this style and how does it help the tone of the book?

I never really considered it stream of consciousness as to me that suggests a sort of free-flowing, spontaneous and often disconnected / meandering type of prose, whereas Pig Iron was quite heavily re-written a number of times and the sentences pared down. But, yes, it is certainly written from inside the minds of its two narrators.  Hopefully this style gives a heightened emotion and a different sense of perspective that a third person narrative would provide.

imgres-1imgres-2I’ve not read your other books, but I imagine “The Book of Fuck” to have autobiographical elements and Richard (a fictionalisation of the disappearance of Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers) is about a world you know well so what parts of you can we find in Pig Iron?

 I think John-John’s love of nature, his isolationist aspect and disillusionment with the horrible ways in which some people treat one another, are essentially me. Like him I abhor violence too.

You’ve been reviewing a lot of music and interviewing musicians recently, is this influencing your current fiction writing much?

I’ve done paid freelance music journalism since 1996 – aside from doing copywriting in the advertising world it’s the only job I’ve had – so the two of always gone hand in hand really. Last year was quiet but over the past few months I’ve been back out there interviewing more bands than ever. I get about fifty press releases for new albums every day. Tonnes of stuff. More music than I can keep up with. I think I’ve interviewed eighteen bands these past three months, and reviewed a lot more music.

I like the discipline and economy of journalism – the quick turnarounds, the limited word counts. And I like talking to rock and pop stars. I listen to a lot of dark music which possibly infiltrates my fiction. My previous novel Richard was completely in that world but I don’t think writing about music is particularly influencing my current/future stuff at all. That said, I have been working on a novel which I described to someone as being like “if DH Lawrence made death metal”. It’s not, but I liked the sound of that.

What made you first decide to write novels and how does it differ to journalism?

I have been in love with literature all my life and being a writer is all I have ever wanted to do. Journalism was a good way to learn how to write, and to just about make a living while doing so. Also, I’m terrible with authority so self employment seemed like a good option. How does it differ to journalism? In the obvious way really. Fiction is fantasy, escape, kingdom-building, playing God – whereas with journalism you are bound by facts and at the mercy of your editors and each magazine’s differing house style. I think both feed the other.

I’ve read about the literary movement called Brutalists that you started a few years ago with some other writers.  Pig Iron has the raw honesty the movement talks about.  Could your book have been published by a large/corporate publisher? How has it been received? Has publishing changed since you started the movement?

I love reading, writing and books but I don’t much like the mainstream publishing world. I’ve been published by tiny publishers and huge publishers and feel it is easy to get lost, overlooked on a big publisher – if you can even get a foot in the door in the first place. The mainstream industry has tried and tested ways of doing things and if you or your writing doesn’t fit squarely into those methods then it is doubly tough. Pig Iron was only read by one corporate publisher who turned it down because “stories set in Northern towns tend not to sell” but fortunately Bluemoose had the guts to publish it.

The publishing world is quite Oxbridge and for all the recent technological advancements doesn’t really change that much. They want Hot New Things. They want novels that Tell Us Something. They want Narrative Arcs and Marketable Story Hooks. None of the other big publishers would even read Pig Iron. Yet still: it is by far my best received book and I currently get a few emails, messages and online reviews each week from readers who have reacted positively. It was runner-up in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. I’ve heard from farmers, oil rig workers, hairdressers, prison officers, bare knuckle fighters, travellers, academics. It is a key text on a creative writing MA at a London university and has been entered for various prizes by lecturers.

I sleep on a bed of rejection letters. I light fires with them – but I’m not bitter about it. My attitude is to ignore the publishing world, just keep writing and hopefully everything will work out in the end. The business ebbs and flows but the written word is immortal!

You wrote a post on your blog last year called “2012: A year in writing” which made life as a writer sound very unglamorous. What keeps you going?

I love my life. I love writing. I’m always broke and often fraught with financial concerns, and have to skimp on many things to survive, like clothes and food and entertainment, but I feel a great sense of freedom that is worth more than any money. Besides…writing. It’s not exactly back-breaking is it? Really it’s a luxury.

What’s your next novel about and what else are you working on?

I’ve written two novels. One is about a young girl who abducts a baby that has been placed in her care and goes on the run in Cumbria, pursued by a sadistic priest. The other is about a vile pig farmer who kills a girl then falls in love with her. that one is set in the remotest corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Along with Pig Iron they collectively form a very loose trilogy of rural noir. Folk fiction.

(Asked last week, so slight overlap with the answer above) I know you’ve got a couple of unpublished novels under your belt at the moment, what else are you working on right now?

As far as I can tell I have a new novel coming out in 2014. It is set in Cumbria and the main protagonist is female, which is a first for me. It also features a priest. And a wooden leg. Then I am about to start re-writing another novel – the “if-DH-Lawrence-made-death metal-but-not-really” one. It’s by far the darkest and most disturbing work I’ve written. I read a bit recently and felt ill. I actually offended myself.

You recently announced on your blog and twitter that you have written a novella to be published by Galley Beggar Press and available in the summer. What can you tell me about it?

It is a novella, but there is no prose in it – only dialogue. So in a way it’s a play,but there are no stage directions, so it’s not. It’s very much a novella. It’s called Snorri & Frosti and is about everything else I tend to write about really – life and death. It concerns two brothers who live in a log cabin in the mountains in an unnamed northern European country. They are old. It is snowing. One of them has a headache. I would say it is slightly influenced by Beckett but I’ve never actually read his work nor seen it performed. The set-up is maybe a little like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Well, there’s three acts anyway.

How is writing a novella different from writing a novel – or isn’t it?

I suppose it’s the difference between a sprint and a marathon. Snorri & Frosti was written in a short, intense burst in sub-zero conditions. The pace of a novella is much easier to maintain, whereas perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel is keeping focused on the story and the tone for months or years at a time.

You told me it was slightly too long to be a short story. When does a short story become a novella?

The eternal question. Who knows, really? I don’t think there is a rule-book, or if there is I’d rather not see it. I’d say 10,000 words is about as long as I would go with a short story, and this novella just tops that. It could be five times the length but I think it would lose something if I stretched it out that far as that as it all takes place over one day and it was only ever something I wanted to write over three or four days.

Are you influenced by other media like art, film or TV?

Massively. Especially film and photography. I visited many photographic exhibitions while writing Pig Iron and would say it was as influenced by a few key contemporary documentary photographers – Janine Weidel, Don McCullin, Chris Killip, George Plemper – as any author. Music too.

Who are the writers, modern and classic, you go back to time and again, and why?

Knut Hamsun, John Fante, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, DH Lawrence, Daniel Defoe, Roald Dahl, Gordon Burn, Ted Lewis, William Wordsworth, David Peace, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Rechy, Derek Raymond, Denis Johnson, Jean Genet, Henry Miller.

What are you reading at the moment?

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.  Its brilliant.  Also Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, which is a ripping yarn. And Sight & Sound magazine.  I like that.  It’s probably the most intelligently-written magazine out there.

Recommend a book that will surprise us – why should we read it?

imgres-2I read a lot of books about nature, animals, landscape and all things countryside-related. The best I’ve read in recent years of ‘Waterlog’ by Roger Deakin, which is about his love of outdoor swimming in Britain. It only came out in 1999 but is already an undeniable classic in its field. (AFH: see right Mr FH reading it at the moment!)

A big thanks to Ben for answering my questions.

The White Goddess: An Encounter – Simon Gough

the white goddessAbout two years after finishing university, once Mr FH and I had proper jobs that paid enough to get us off the bread line, we did something we’d never done before and have not done since; we went on a package holiday.  To Majorca.  It was one of those pot luck affairs, “assign on arrival” I think they call it, basically we didn’t know where we were staying.  Luckily for us the reps on the coach from Palma airport didn’t ask us to alight at Magaluf.  Despite still being in our 20’s we could see it wasn’t for us.   Further around the coast was our final destination.  A resort called Peguera, which to my memory was particularly favoured by German tourists, and the local eateries definitely pandered to their palates; Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and even Eisbein (pigs trotters – I kid you not) were on the menus at the restaurants on the strip.  We had a cute little ground floor apartment with a patio and spent a lovely week tearing around the island in a hired Peugeot 106 trying to avoid being maimed on the winding Majorcan roads frequented by crazy locals.  One of our excursions was to Deya, a tiny coastal village on the west side of the island.  We wanted to visit the place where poet and writer Robert Graves lived and worked for most of his life, he is also buried there, as is his wife.  There is no denying, it is a beautiful hamlet in an idyllic setting which undoubtedly provided a sanctuary for him to write.  But my abiding memory is that Deya was crawling with tourists, like us.  The locals were unfriendly, not without reason I guess and it was altogether slightly disappointing.  I think I built up my expectations and hoped to feel some of the mysticism and poetic magic that is supposed to surround the place, and I just didn’t.  We had a very nice menu del dia before taking our lives into our hands again, en route to some other hamlet.  I know what you are thinking…you are wondering where this is leading.   Here it comes.

I thought of this holiday while reading The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough, the grand-nephew of Robert Graves, who incidentally was educated right here in my local town at the big scary private school on the hill.  In the author’s own words from his forward, this book is:

..a fragment of autobiography written in narrative form in order to breathe new lfe into a remarkable story which occured over fifty years ago..

So, neither completely fact, nor completely fiction, more of a mash-up of the two and it really is remarkable.  At the beginning we meet Simon in 1989, he is an antiquarian book dealer in his 40’s mulling over a life-threatening illness and the prospect of returning to Majorca for the first time in over 25 years.

…The past was not to be trifled with..My past had haunted me for so long that if I didn’t attempt to return to it now – lay bare the ruins which had become the foundations of the rest of my life, I’d not only have denied its existence, but denied my own…

That passage gives you a flavour of the way this book is written; in a slightly melodramatic tone.  Don’t let that put you off because Gough has a gift for description and although sometimes a bit long-winded and on occasion, laboured, his writing is wonderfully lyrical and almost mesmerising.

The story revolves around Simon’s visits to Graves’ house in Majorca when he was 10 and 17/18.  On his first visit he is with his highly strung and newly divorced mother.  At the Graves’ household he finds the freedom to roam, releasing him from the stifling grip of his mother and the stuffy English school he attends back home.  The lifestyle in Deya is bohemian, the larger-than-life Graves is surrounded by family and other admiring artists. Simon feels safe and at home and soon makes great friends with his Grand-Uncle.

When he returns aged 17 there is a new member of the inner circle.  24 year old Margot is Robert’s muse.  He believes she is the reincarnation of an ancient goddess.  The muse was very important to Robert’s work and although not his first, Margot seemed to have a profound affect on his writing.  Margot and Robert’s first meeting is described as causing the following reaction:

…his hair stood on end and he felt as though he were having a heart attack or a stroke or something because shards of words…and fragments of poems he’d already written in the future…started to flash through his brain like missiles.  He said that his head was full of chaos, as if he’d broken through to a new universe.. 

Margot is beautiful, distant, indifferent and almost exotic.  Simon is in awe of her as though she really were the mythical creature she is supposed to be, he feels an overwhelming magnetic attraction to her and Margot is somehow drawn to Simon, trusts him, befriends him and finds an ally in him, which of course is his undoing.

The story shifts to Madrid, where Margot goes for a rest from Robert and Simon to study.  Simon’s loyalties are torn between the two, he has promised Robert to look after Margot, yet Margot makes him promise not to tell Robert her address, she refuses to write to him and Simon knows how this must be affecting Robert’s writing.  Madrid is where things go horribly wrong and Simon eventually realises his part in the final betrayal.

This book feels like catharsis fiction (or Auto-bi-fantasy, as the author calls it), as though Simon Gough needs to get it all off his chest, every last detail.  And there is a lot of detail and minute description in The White Goddess.  Having said that, it is captivating and touches on themes of loyalty, family and personal freedom.  Gough builds the tension effectively, to the point where I was gritting my teeth and muttering at Simon, wondering why he couldn’t see what was going on.  I knew things couldn’t end well, because quite early on I had that feeling of foreboding.  The way Gough describes his teenage self, so passionate and infatuated, self-centred and blind with love is true to the maniacal fever that comes over you as a teenager, desperately in love for the first time.

Readers who pop by frequently will know how much I love a bit of landscape in literature, and there is plenty in The White Goddess with descriptions of the winding roads I mentioned earlier, vertigo inducing precipitous cliffs, gorgeous beaches and barren, dusty countryside.  You can almost feel the sultry warmth, taste the dust and see the heat shimmer. This is a long book at 650 pages, but worth the time it takes to read and I would encourage you to give it a go.  I don’t recall what I read on that holiday in Majorca, but this would have been perfect.

I was sent this book by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press and I owe them a bit of an apology for my tardiness seeing as I received it back in September.  I read it quite quickly and sat down on several occasions to write but couldn’t.  I’ve needed some time to digest it!  Sorry Sam!  Galley Beggar is a new independent publishing house, with only this and one other book in their catalogue.  Their newest book My Elvis Blackout by Simon Crump has had great reviews in the last week.  Check them out here: Galley Beggar Press

This book is now off to Literary Taste, who lives in Madrid and I’m sure will appreciate it.